CHECKLIST: How to Conduct an ESG Audit on Your Wastewater Treatment Capabilities

In 2024 onward, industrial responsibility is an important consideration for businesses. Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) audits are a helpful internal tool to keep your business aligned not only with its own mission statement but with broader sustainability goals as well. 

For those businesses operating with wastewater treatment needs–whether via the food and beverage industry, the pharmaceutical industry, or even the residential development space–this sort of audit is critical. 

Integrating ESG principles within wastewater treatment systems is in some cases a regulatory necessity. Even when it’s not, a self-assessment on ESG matters can go a long way toward improving your business’s reputation, resource expenditures, and profit margin. 

Let’s demystify the process of conducting an internal ESG audit.

First, though: What is an internal ESG audit? 

These comprehensive internal evaluations measure a facility’s overall performance on specific environmental, social, and governance benchmarks. Think of your business’s carbon footprint or your record of regulatory compliance. These are no longer nice-to-have intangibles. They’re imperative guides for doing business in the 21st century. 

An audit reveals areas of improvement and outstanding risks (as well as notable successes). Your team can accomplish an internal audit easily once you understand your industry’s particular requirements.

Let’s say you run a food and beverage company, perhaps a brewery. The source of your hops will come under the scope of an internal ESG audit. So, too, will your wastewater treatment processes. Are you reusing wastewater to clean your brewing tanks? Are you cleaning the floors with your reclaimed wastewater? Those are specific areas of resource expenditure that you’re going to want to dial in for maximum ESG success and efficiency.

READ MORE: Harnessing Wastewater Reuse and Recycling: Driving ESG Progress in the Food and Beverage Industry

Take each element of ESG separately and compile a checklist of variables that might be improved. By setting clear objectives and defining the scope of your audit, you can accomplish a great deal of change within your business by simply observing your impact on the world around you. 

Review our wastewater treatment checklist below for some help in this process.

One last note: As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, some companies are beginning to wind down this specific “E-S-G” language in favor of broader terms like “corporate responsibility” or “business responsibility.” Regardless of how your team frames the conversation, the tenets remain the same: Commit your business to certain core values and always seek to leave the world a better place than you found it.

Your wastewater treatment is a great place to start.

Environmental Impact

The environmental assessment is the backbone of the ESG audit of your wastewater treatment system. This involves a thorough evaluation of your facility’s impact on local ecosystems, waste management, and energy usage. Engineers should assess the efficiency of treatment processes (and possibly scout more efficient options), monitor effluent quality, and ensure compliance with local/state environmental laws and regulations. Identifying areas for improvement is crucial. This is not a static process.

Emissions and Effluent Quality Control

  • Conduct a quantitative analysis of effluent against relevant regulatory benchmarks
    • For example, if your business operates in Texas, begin with the regulatory language published by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
  • Implement a systematic review of effluent treatment processes for optimization and address the low-hanging fruit immediately
    • For example, how’s the oxygen supply? Dialing in your aeration rate can go a long way toward boosting the efficiency of your biological treatment processes
  • Regularly audit environmental permits and discharge compliance requirements, and perhaps appoint a specific executive-level employee to do so quarterly; make this conversation a part of your regular strategy meetings

Energy Utilization and Optimization

  • Perform energy audits to map consumption patterns against operational cycles: When are you expending the most energy?
    • Advancements in MBR technology, for example, minimize overall energy consumption and contribute to lower emissions; want to learn more?
  • Evaluate potential integration of renewable energy sources  like solar or wind
    • MBR systems produce high-quality effluent suitable for reuse, something to keep in mind on the topic of energy consumption
  • Analyze the energy efficiency of mechanical and electrical systems using performance metrics that align with your specific wastewater treatment goals (and local/state regulations)

Water Conservation and Quality Management

  • Implement water balance studies to identify reuse and recycling opportunities, including potable end uses if applicable
  • Regularly monitor compliance with water quality standards through sampling and testing; make sure your team knows your local/state point of contact
  • Develop and implement specific water-saving initiatives in the treatment process

Solid Waste and Residuals Management

  • Audit your sludge handling, treatment, and disposal processes for regulatory compliance
  • Evaluate waste minimization strategies and recycling opportunities
  • Ensure adherence to hazardous waste regulations and best practices

Chemical Inventory and Hazard Management

  • Maintain a detailed inventory of chemicals used in the treatment process (hint: your team should already have this on-site, so if you don’t… make sure you do now!)
  • Implement strict protocols for the storage, handling, and disposal of chemicals (hint: see above)
  • Conduct regular reviews of compliance with hazardous materials regulations

Social Responsibility

Social assessment evaluates the facility’s impact on its employees and the local community. This includes reviewing health and safety protocols, community engagement/education initiatives, and workforce diversity programs. 

Engineers should assess how the facility’s operations affect the local community, ensuring that they foster a positive and inclusive social environment.

Community Impact Assessment

  • Conduct a local impact analysis to understand facility operations on local communities
    • MBR systems ensure safe and clean water, directly impacting community health. These systems offer a sense of scalability that can support broader urbanization efforts while also managing water resources responsibly
  • Develop and maintain active community engagement programs
    • MBR facilities may even serve as educational platforms for communities, raising awareness about water conservation and treatment and delivering a novel differentiator to your business. If you’re a residential developer, for example, your MBR installation or expansion is a great platform for including a homeowners’ association to provide up-close information about wastewater efforts
  • Establish a system for addressing community feedback and concerns; this can take the shape of a helpful website or a local phone number clearly posted for those who may be impacted by your wastewater treatment processes (just make sure someone is actually there to answer the phone)

Workforce Health and Safety

  • Perform comprehensive reviews of safety protocols and emergency procedures, and ensure adherence to OSHA standards and other relevant health and safety regulations
  • Analyze incident and accident reports to develop preventative strategies
    • When an incident or accident takes place, make sure your team huddles in the immediate aftermath to diagnosis the cause and to develop more stringent safety measures for the future

Human Resources and Labor Practices

  • Audit policies and practices concerning workforce diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • Conduct employee satisfaction surveys and foster a culture of open communication
  • Review adherence to fair labor practices and employment laws

Governance and Compliance

Governance assessment focuses on the facility’s internal processes and policies. This includes reviewing management structures, compliance with legal standards, and ethical practices. Effective governance is characterized by transparent decision-making, robust risk management, and clear communication channels, ensuring responsible operation of the facility.

Corporate Governance Structures

  • Evaluate the efficiency of governance frameworks and decision-making processes
  • Assess the effectiveness of internal controls, compliance, and risk management systems
    • MBR systems specifically address new and often stringent wastewater discharge regulations; ensure you’re staying up-to-date with your state or jurisdiction’s regulatory language
  • Review legal and ethical compliance across all operational aspects

Environmental and Compliance Reporting

  • Verify the accuracy and completeness of environmental data reporting
  • Review the implementation status of recommendations from previous audits
  • Assess the level of transparency and accountability in public disclosures and reports

Stakeholder Communication

  • Evaluate mechanisms for stakeholder engagement, including feedback loops
    • Advanced wastewater treatment solutions like MBR technology can contribute to improved sustainability reporting and stakeholder communication
  • Analyze the effectiveness of communication channels with regulatory bodies, community representatives, and employees

Emergency Response Preparedness

  • Conduct scenario-based drills to assess readiness for environmental emergencies
  • Review and update emergency response plans and procedures

Rethinking Your ESG Needs

Run a quick Google search for “ESG compliance,” and you’ll see just how pertinent this topic is for operators leveraging wastewater treatment technology. If we had a crystal ball, we’d insist that ESG compliance is only going to become more critical to business growth in the future. The time to lean into this framework is now.

We’ll leave you with this: a few more items to establish and then review on a regular basis:

  • Establish and monitor KPIs specific to the ESG benchmarks cited above
  • Identify areas for improvement based on data-driven insights
    • Talk to your operations team!
  • Develop and implement strategic plans to enhance ESG performance, and make this a quarterly conversation in the C-suite.

Ready to learn more about how we can help you upgrade your facility or start your build-out? Talk to an expert today!